SUNDAY EDITION | Louisville's plan to remake Park Hill fails to deliver ... so far
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – From his front porch at the Parkway Place apartments, 20-year-old Don Ezell has a clear view of the abandoned Rhodia chemical plant. Most of the land has been cleared, but several buildings remain.
City officials have tried in vain to sell the 17-acre site at 11th and Hill streets in western Louisville’s Algonquin neighborhood, where a factory that made resins for the paint industry closed in 1993. Since buying it in 2002, Metro government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in grass-cutting and maintenance costs.
“It’s just an ugly sight," Ezell said, but he welcomes the possibility of a new owner. “I think it would make a big difference – probably bring some jobs to the community or something like that.”
For years, Louisville leaders have targeted the neighborhood for the type of investment that has transformed other parts of the city. Under then-Mayor Jerry Abramson, city officials commissioned a series of plans and studies in the 2000s that identified ways to improve some of Louisville’s poorest and blighted areas.
The work led to a 109-page “implementation strategy” that was released in 2009 – essentially a road map for reviving the Park Hill industrial corridor, an area roughly bordered by Algonquin Parkway to the south, Seventh Street to the east, Broadway to the north and 22nd Street to the west.
More than $400,000 in grant funds paid for the plan and a real estate study from the same time.
Some of the goals were ambitious, such as developing a $2.8 million park linking the University of Louisville with the Ohio River waterfront. Others appeared less daunting: Create a business association and hold an employment summit every six months.
But only a handful of the projects have been accomplished thus far, while the vast majority are on hold, mired in financial uncertainty or lost in bureaucracy, according to a WDRB News analysis. Among the findings:
- The business association disbanded earlier this year. As a result, there is no organization taking the lead on initiatives such giving the corridor a new "brand" and the workforce meetings. “We had some events and had some meetings and had attendance – but nobody was able to take it and charge forward with it,” said Neville Blakemore, a businessman who served on the association’s board.
- Pursuing road work identified in 2008, including widening Seventh Street between Algonquin and Hill streets, now depends on whether those projects are adopted in the city’s “Move Louisville” transportation plan, which is past due and doesn’t have a completion date. “There’s another process now in place that didn’t exist when this (Park Hill) report was written,” said Theresa Zawacki, senior policy adviser to Louisville Forward, the city’s economic development agency.
- Making the corridor home to “industrial” art projects, including an art competition and designing new bus stops, also is on hold. Speaking for the city’s Commission on Public Art, Zawacki said: “The focus has not been specifically on Park Hill, but in creating opportunities for public art around the community.”
“It takes so long to do what we promise in the Park Hill area,” said Martina Kunnecke, president of Neighborhood Planning and Preservation, a nonprofit group focusing on urban planning, government transparency and other issues.
“But yet overnight we can build an arena," she said. "Just in record time we can build a bridge downtown that many people question, or we can figure out a way to get Omni here by paying them lots and lots of money and incentives.”
Some progress, but challenges remain
The Park Hill plan is meant to identify “policies and programs needed to make the industrial corridor a magnet for businesses and new jobs.” About 42 percent of people in the area’s largest Census tract lived below the poverty level in 2013, according to Census estimates.
In an interview, Zawacki pointed to several high-profile projects in the area that are planned or underway but aren’t yet visible, including a Walmart supercenter at Broadway and 18th Street. A judge recently dismissed a lawsuit over the Walmart, which is projected to create more than 300 jobs. An Indiana company also wants to build a controversial methane plant at 17th and Maple streets.
She also said there’s been preliminary work planning a better connection to Interstate 65 close to the University of Louisville’s Belknap campus and Churchill Downs and adding bike lanes and sidewalks. The city’s Archives Building now has a “green” roof.
While not part of the plan, the Metropolitan Sewer District has completed several other projects in the area meant to keep millions of gallons of rainwater a year from entering the sewer system. City loans and federal environmental grants have helped clean up contaminated sites, such as the Edison Center building at Seventh and Oak streets and a YMCA at the site of the former Philip Morris cigarette factory on Broadway.
“I would love to see more actual implementation coming out of this process,” Zawacki said. “But the reality of the political climate, the reality of the market climate, the reality of the business climate is that it takes time.”
But Metro Council member David James, whose district includes Park Hill, said the plan “needs to be re-energized.”
“I don’t know that there’s been a lot of ownership that’s taken place currently with it from the new administration,” said James, D-6th. “I think they’ve made some very small fits and starts, but it’s an area that truly needs improvement and some attention.”
Michael Brooks, who lives in the California neighborhood, served on an advisory committee when the plan was developed but said he’s seen few results.
“It just disappeared,” he said. “We actually got the recommendations and everything, but it just seemed like after that it just disappeared.”
The plan identified 97 goals, but less than 10 have been accomplished or moved beyond the planning stage, according to the WDRB review based on interviews with city officials and agencies.
For instance, it called for a park linking U of L with the Ohio River waterfront. Despite being tasked with making that park a reality, Metro Parks hasn’t been “significantly involved,” a spokesman said in an email.
“It’s always nice to be aspirational, but this one hasn’t gone anywhere,” Zawacki said.
The plan also tasked KentuckianaWorks, the city’s workforce development agency, with helping establish the twice-a-year business summit and work with the Interdenominational Ministerial Coalition to discuss the role of churches in the plan.
“While the two items we were mentioned on have not taken shape as described in that plan, there have been several steps we've taken that address the needs of the area and the spirit of the plan,” Phil Miller, a KentuckianaWorks spokesman, said in an email.
Those steps include having the coalition represented on KentuckianaWorks board, operating a career center in western Louisville and working on “new outreach tool to provide news directly to churches” in the area, Miller said.
In an interview, coalition president Rev. Vincent James said he wasn’t aware of his group's role in the Park Hill plan.
Rhodia and Parkway Place
The plan also assumes that Parkway Place, the 38-acre, 637-unit public housing complex in Park Hill, will be razed and its residents moved, following the example of previous initiatives to eliminate barracks-style housing.
But the Louisville Metro Housing Authority doesn’t expect to take down Parkway Place in the foreseeable future, executive director Tim Barry said.
Barry acknowledged that the units need to be replaced, but he said the city’s priority right now is on redeveloping the Beecher Terrace public housing complex west of downtown.
“We can only do so much, and the so much really depends on the money,” he said.
Across the street from Parkway Place, the old Rhodia site continues to sit vacant. The old City of Louisville paid $1 million in 2002 for the property, which is the largest government-owned tract for commercial and industrial use, Zawacki said.
A recent grant will pay for removing the buildings that remain within the next year, Zawacki said. The city is actively marketing the site, but it hasn’t yet found a buyer – even though there have been negotiations over the years.
“For one reason or another,” she said, “they haven’t worked out.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the location of the former Rhodia site. It is in the Algonquin neighborhood.
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